Not many high school students can say that they are the president of a start-up.
Matthew Lewis is the 17-year-old president and founder of PhishTrain, an education service that simulates phishing emails as a breach prevention measure, sending repeat-offender employees to online training. Now a senior at North Hunterdon High School, Lewis began this company at age 15, during his sophomore year with two of his friends, working behind the scenes as "of age" employees of a hired service sold their product for them. Lewis' clients include a few Fortune 500 companies. The company has four employees now, and Lewis hopes to expand.
Despite being one of the founding members, having contributed to the initial investment in the company's development and running the company during and even after the school day ends, Lewis has run into doubters.
He had a rocky experience when meeting in person with a client whose excited demeanor turned to skepticism once he realized that company president he had been speaking with over the phone was no more than a high schooler, so Lewis typically abstains from revealing his age unless asked. While that instance did end up with PhishTrain obtaining a new client, Lewis was not sure if all instances would. Thus, his LinkedIn account does not mention his title, and during phone conversations, he simply states that he is "with PhishTrain" unless asked specifically for his role.
During the two years that Lewis has been in this business, after that initial incident he has only once revealed his age to his clients up front. That too, was unanticipated. However, this client, despite knowing his age, hired him not long after their first encounter.
Fleetwash founder Vito DiGiovanni became a PhishTrain client soon after hearing Lewis' first place pitch at Seton Hall University's High School Pirate's Pitch venture fund competition. Having faced the same age discrimination when he was starting his now $100 million business at age 19, DiGiovanni sympathized with Lewis. DiGiovanni fondly remembers the start-up days when he used to sport a beard in order to make himself appear older. He commented on his decision to hire PhishTrain, "I had no problem with hiring Matt and his partners. The younger generation is comfortable with technology."
Lewis began his entrepreneurial endeavors in the first grade, buying toys on eBay and selling them at school. As a high schooler, his interest has shifted from toys to cybersecurity. After watching the movie "The Interview," Lewis recognized that some cybersecurity breaches were more simple than they appeared, and he had an easy fix. Thus, PhishTrain was born. While there are similar products on the market, Lewis claims that his company's product is much cheaper. PhishTrain provides clients with data security, attack simulations, an "educational lifeline," benchmarking and program analytics.
"Age should not be the only deciding factor in competency," Lewis said. "Great minds must share ideas to gain all new perspectives on logistical systems on our planet. Young and old alike should bond as a cohesive team and strive to solve puzzles and problems that trouble society."
Being both a high school student and start-up founder can force one into some amusing situations, like having to run to the school restroom to take urgent incoming business calls during the school day, Lewis said.
After school, he often heads directly to his office, which unlike those of many young entrepreneurs, is not at his home. Lewis runs his business out of a rented office space in the same building as one of his partner companies. For Lewis, running his company is a full time job — beginning prior to the school day, continuing throughout and ending hours after. If pressing matters come up throughout the day, even while at school, Lewis sets aside what he is doing to make sure that those matters are taken care of.
When asked if age matters, Lewis told CNBC, "With age comes experience; it's a simple matter of fact that we all know. However, young adults who take the initiative to gain knowledge through experiential learning may gain more understanding than a less motivated adult in the same time span. While age is definitely a factor, it is not the most critical portion of business interactions."
After finishing high school, Lewis plans on attending a top 100 U.S. university to pursue a degree in business or finance, minoring in either history or German, prior to pursuing an MBA. His top choice school is the University of Pennsylvania.
While at the moment an entrepreneurship major is not in his plans, when asked about future entrepreneurial endeavors, Lewis responded, "I don't want to stop. Hopefully through college and beyond I can be working on my own companies in industries that have not even been created yet. Starting my own industry is a dream of mine."
Lewis has been saving most of his share of the profits, some of which may be put toward helping him pay for college.